Making Public Policy Relevant for Bicultural Families in Singapore

A conversation with noted sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan offers insights on Singapore’s growing social diversity and its implications for bicultural families and social policy.

Date Posted

14 Jun 2016


Issue 15, 14 Jun 2016

The realities of globalisation have transformed the way we live our lives and form families. We begin to be exposed and be comfortable relating to other people and their cultures. Singaporeans are marrying fellow Singaporeans across ethnicities and across nationalities. Singaporeans with multiple identities and more complex sub-ethnicities are increasingly the reality today. Inter-ethnic marriages are becoming more common — accounting for about 1 in every 5 marriages in Singapore in 2014, compared to about 1 in every 10 in 2004.1 About 2 in every 5 marriages are transnational — a figure that has not changed very much in the last decade, being 37% in 2014 and 36% in 2004. When these couples go on to be parents, they will raise their children in the midst of colourful blends of cultures, identities and ethnicities. For children from bicultural or bi-national families, what does it mean to be Singaporean? How do they relate with their families, peers and communities across cultures? What is home, community and country to them?

National University of Singapore Professor Paulin Tay Straughan has a unique perspective — both personal and professional — on the integration of children from bicultural families. She is married to Dr Robert Straughan, an American, and they have two grown up sons — both Singaporean, born and bred here. Her sons feel deeply Singaporean and American at the same time. A keen observer of social policies in Singapore, she makes the point that bicultural families hold "very different perspectives and experiences on issues of national identity, family and other social policies". Policies that have worked well for the past fifty years may no longer be adequate for a changing social landscape, which includes an increasingly diverse population, as well as a growing number of bicultural households. "Discussions on biculturalism," Professor Straughan argues, "have to be part of a larger conversation on Singapore’s identity."

On Defining Biculturalism

In sociology, biculturalism involves two originally distinct cultures in some form of co-existence. The children from these families will live, embrace and transverse the richness of both cultures, often unconscious about the need to make any distinction from one or the other because it is as natural as their left and right limbs. They are born to the world with both. The coming together of both cultures defines them and their beliefs. Indeed, these children are the outcome of a significant coming together of differences.

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On the Impact of Biculturalism on Society and Social Policies

While biculturalism, and increasing social diversity in general, is set to have a profound impact on Singaporean society, it is not yet clear how it will shape ongoing conversations about Singapore’s identity, core values, and policies. Professor Straughan surmises that some may feel uneasy about the prospect, "since the articulation of that ambivalent notion of national identity is already so tricky with just Singaporeans in the conversation, let alone having foreigners now". But the truth is we do not have a choice.

She points out an example of why such conversations matter more than ever:

"Foreign spouses who choose to become naturalised citizens will also want their stories inscribed into the national core. But this should not be something new to us, as Singapore was like that many years ago as a young migrant society and accidental nation. A series of happy accidents helped us to attract people from all over the region to settle in Singapore where we now call home."

The implication is that if policies make it hard for Singaporeans with foreign spouses to settle in Singapore, the entire household may leave, or those that are already resident overseas will not return. Particularly with Singapore’s already low fertility rates, we cannot afford to lose any more Singaporean sons and daughters who might otherwise be ready to come home.

We cannot afford to lose any Singaporeans if we can help it; social policies need to reflect and cater to the diverse reality of our households today.

Professor Straughan also recounts her son’s story, who had to choose between a Singaporean and an American citizenship after having been born and schooled in Singapore and completing National Service. It was a difficult decision both for him and the entire family. There was a deep sense of resentment at being forced to choose only one citizenship when he had, all his life, held dear both his Singaporean and American roots — it was like being asked to chop off a limb. While she believes that such situations should be considered on a case-by-case basis, the last thing we want is for children from bicultural families to withdraw from the conversation, because they have been forced into a no-win situation, for instance by current policies against dual citizenship. We cannot afford to lose any Singaporeans if we can help it; social policies need to reflect and cater to the diverse reality of our households today.

On Engaging Bicultural Families: Looking for Commonalities

One way to resolve the difficult question ofidentity in an inclusive way is to look for commonalities. This is easier in societies which are more culturally homogenous, such as Japan and Korea. As Professor Straughan highlights, given Singapore’s diversity, the challenge is different:

"How do we integrate foreigners into our national script? What are the shared identity and shared values from these ‘accidental co-citizens’? The broad strokes are easy to agree upon: multiculturalism, tolerance for others’ cultural practices, justice and equality. Singapore stands for good, clean, incorruptible governance across the board. This is an important promise. Meritocracy works well only when you cannot bribe your way up, although people still have different starting points, which we must be aware of."

– On social integration and shared values

But when we start to look at our normative culture — i.e., the practices and routines of our everyday lives — it becomes much more subjective, individual and therefore complex. In a dense city such as Singapore, it is very difficult not to encounter someone with a different ethnicity, culture or belief system; by necessity, Singaporeans are exposed to other cultures, languages, cuisines and ways of life. The question, however, is whether we are accepting of this diversity:

"On a day-to-day basis, at an individual level, it is easy to practise: we just have to be open-minded. But at a national level, it becomes more complex. What do we expect to see when we go into a Singaporean home? Does it only depend on the ethnicity of the family? What do the different cuisines in the hawker centre say about our culture? What is uniquely Singapore? Over the years, it must be an embodiment of the different ethnicities. We should not be surprised if a Singaporean Chinese feel more at ease with a Singaporean Malay compared to a mainland Chinese. This is because the Singaporean Chinese may have more commonalities with a fellow Singaporean of a different ethnicity. And these could be in the form of familiarity towards each other’s language or food. For example, a Chinese Singaporean may understand Malay terms such as ‘cantik’ and ‘bodoh’ or would have tasted mee rebus and nasi lemak. But when hosted for dinner by a mainland Chinese family, this same Chinese Singaporean may be surprised by the dishes and their preparation, which all seem foreign to him."

– On embracing our uniquely hybrid Singaporean identities

The implication is that we already have a uniquely Singaporean grasp of culture, including those not immediately our own. But in order for this unique perspective to be inclusive and complete, Singaporeans from all walks of life, including those of bicultural backgrounds, should be rendered visible, engaged and given a voice.

This requires particular sensitivity, even as a younger generation of Singaporeans yearn for a sense of belonging and a way to define themselves in increasingly globalised and competitive environments. Professor Straughan argues that:

"Children from bicultural families are no different. They, too, start to think about what will anchor them to Singapore. For example, a Singaporean-Vietnamese child will feel alienated if he is asked to downplay his Vietnamese roots. We have to be tactful, sensitive and respectful when we engage citizens. It is important to be curious about each other without fear. Give space to discuss cultural practices which define our everyday lives. There should be no ranking or judgement regarding what is superior or inferior. The purpose of such conversations is to seek out commonalities. This is a never-ending exercise which we have to begin now, include the younger generation, and especially those from bicultural families."

– On giving space to difference

There are times when we fail to recognise the importance of allowing Singaporeans air time. It is important to let people speak to release some angst.

Encouraging These Conversations to Take Place

Professor Straughan feels that such discussions should begin in school, especially at the primary and secondary levels.We need to mainstream into schools topics such as the impact of internationalisation and globalisation or the importance of being an inclusive society, discussed against a background of our ongoing efforts and supporting policies, including laws that protect social harmony or which exclude hate speech. It would be better to have healthy avenues for “safe conversations”, rather than allow these views to go underground.

In Professor Straughan’s view, it is unfortunate that "National Education has become perceived as top-down indoctrination". But it need not be the case, she argues, if Singaporeans are able to weave their stories together organically, on appropriate platforms where the government is only one ofthe players rather than the dominant voice.

"There are times," she argues, "when we fail to recognise the importance of allowing Singaporeans air time. It is important to let people speak to release some angst."


Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan is a sociologist from the National University of Singapore (NUS). She is also the Vice Dean of International Relations and Special Duties at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Professor Straughan served as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2009 to 2012. Her area of research focuses on medical sociology, ageing studies, work and family. She obtained her PhD from the University of Virginia in 1990 and has been teaching in NUS since 1991.

Kharina Zainal is Principal Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. Her team studies issues of social policy development in Singapore. She is also involved in developing and facilitating programmes at the College.

This article is written by Kharina, based on conversations with Professor Straughan, conducted on 19 January 2016.


  1. Inter-ethnic marriages constituted 20.4% of total marriages in 2014, up from 13.1% in 2004. In 2014, the proportion of inter-ethnic marriages continue to be higher among Muslim marriages (34.4%) than among civil marriages (17%). See Department of Statistics, “Statistics on Marriage and Divorces: Reference year 2014”, July 2015, accessed January 29, 2016,

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